Will a million Rand (USD 95,000) do the trick?
Old Mutual, the title sponsor of Cape Town's Two Oceans Marathon, has put up this amount for any athlete who breaks the race records in the 45th running of the 56 km race on Saturday. The magnificent 3:03:44 run by Thompson Magawana in 1988 and the equally brilliant 3:30:36 that gave Frith van der Merwe the overall 22nd position in 1989 are the marks to beat.
Over the years many have tried and a handful have predicted they would break the records, but none could. The closest anyone could come was when Marko Mambo (ZIM) ran 3:05:39 in 2005 and Olesya Nurgalieva clocked 3:33:58 in 2011.
Apart from Mambo (twice; he also did 3:07:41 in 2004), only six other men since Magawana could complete the demanding course in under 3:08: Zithulele Sinqe (3:07:17) in 1997, Moses Njodzi (3:06:50) in 2006, Bethuele Netshifhefhe (3:07:56) in 2007, Mabuthile Lebopo (3:06:18), Moeketsi Mosuhli (3:07:29) and Teboho Sello (3:07:44) in 2010. Only four other women apart from Nurgalieva (who did it three times) could beat 3:37: her twin sister Elena (three times, with a best of 3:35:25 in 2008), Tatyana Zhirkova (3:36:19) in 2006, Madina Biktagirova (3:35:04) in 2007, and Lilia Yadzhak (3:35:15) in 2007.
It should be remembered that both Magawana and Van der Merwe set still-standing world bests for 50 km on their record runs. Magawana covered the distance in 2:43:38 and Van der Merwe in 3:08:39. Magawana reached the standard marathon mark in 2:15:05 and Van der Merwe in 2:36:00, then they ran 14 kilometers farther.
The two fastest men in the field on the basis of their marathon PBs are the South African record holder, Gert Thys, 42, who ran his 2:06:33 in 1999, and Kenyan David Barmasai, 25, whose 2:07:18 dates from 2011, when he won the Dubai Marathon. Barmasai’s most recent marathons were tenth in this year’s Hong Kong Marathon (2:16:55) and twelfth in last year’s Xiamen Marathon (2:19:06); he was also fifth in the 2011 World Championships Marathon. He has no ultramarathon experience.
Thys, who has been running well in shorter races in recent years, has not had much luck with ultramarathons, failing to finish the Comrades in 2012 and 2013, as well as the Two Oceans in 2011 and 2013. In between the latter two years he was fourth in 2012 in 3:09:42, a veterans (masters) course record, with a world best of 2:48:39 at the 50 km mark. He was the first veteran in the last three editions of the SA 10 km Championships, with a 31:31 in February this year. He failed to finish the SA Marathon last year and his most recent marathon success was a win in the Gaborone Marathon in 2013.
One must probably look elsewhere for a possible winner. Nine of last year’s gold medalists (top-10 finishers) have entered again, among them defending champion David Gatebe (3:08:54). The South African marathon champion as long ago as 2008, he surprised everyone in his first Two Oceans (although not his first ultramarathon, as many thought) to gain a comfortable victory over Mthandazo Qhina (3:10:02). Gatebe ran almost equal halves (1:34:31 and 1:34:23), a commanding performance considering the extremely difficult second half of the race. Gatebe, whose marathon best is 2:15:30 (which gave him the national title), has already run an ultra this year; he clocked 3:01:05 for fourth in the Om die Dam (Round the Dam) 50 km on 15 March, and also was fifth in the Mafikeng Marathon in 2:31:44. He followed his Two Oceans performance last year with a 24th place in the Comrades.
Gatebe, Qhina and Johannes Kekana were the only South Africans in the top ten in 2013, with Kekana finishing eighth (and first veteran). The other six gold medalists who are returning are Mosuhli (LES), Collen Makaza (ZIM), Motlokoa Nkhabutlane (LES), Tsotang Maine (LES), Lebenya Nkoka (LES) and Mike Fokoroni (ZIM).
Qhina has been steadily improving in the Two Oceans from 21st in 2011 to second last year, but did not finish the Comrades. He would dearly love to be the first Cape Town runner since Don Hartley in 1973 to win the race and has both the ability, mental toughness and experience to do so.
Kekana will be the favourite for the 40+ category again and could also repeat his top-ten position of 2013, but he will be challenged by Shadrack Hoff and Moges Taye Mamo (ETH), both running their debut Two Oceans, as well as Brighton Chipere (ZIM), Sandile Makhaye and Kanie Simons and, of course, Thys, if he can put everything together on the day. The top Zimbabwean veteran, Sipho Ncube, is also entered, but ran the Forever Resorts Loskop 50 km last weekend.
Mamo is one of two top Ethiopians in the race; the other is Tesfaye Demeke Diro, who finished eighth in the City to City 50 km last year.
Mosuhli has placed in the first four three times and has been in the top ten in all four his runs; he was third last year and will be a danger man again. Apart from his excellent Two Oceans, he was also fifth in the Gauteng Marathon in 2013.
Two other runners are worth watching. Phathalla Mohloli (LES) was twelfth last year and although he has not done much since then, he could improve to finish among the golds. He was second in the Loskop 50 km in 2012.
Stephen Muzhingi (ZIM) won the Comrades in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and the Cape Town ultra in 2012 (when he became the first male runner since Derek Preiss in 1975 to hold the Comrades and Two Oceans titles together). He did not have a good run last year, finishing 35th, but then went on to achieve his seventh gold medal in the Comrades with his tenth position. He will surely do his utmost to improve on his 2013 showing.
Other contenders for a top position will most likely be Comrades champion Claude Moshiywa, although his attention will be focused on the longer race, Mzwanele Maphekula, Vusi Malobola and Edwin Chimombo (ZIM).
ETHIOPIAN WOMEN COULD BE A FACTOR
A number of Ethiopian women will compete, with the trio of Tsion Ababu Lemma, Alemtsehay Hailu Kakissa and Shitaye Gemechu (who served a two-year ban for EPO use from 2009 to 2011) probably the best. Only Kakissa has ultramarathon experience – she was fourth in the Zululand District 56 km earlier this year, but has also run (and won) the Vaal, Johnson Crane and Sasol marathons in 2014, as well as finished fifth in the Pretoria Marathon!
Gemachu has a PB of 2:26:10 (run in Paris in 2008) and earlier this year was third in the Hong Kong Marathon.
But Thabita Tsatsa (ZIM) certainly goes into the race as the favourite. She was awarded the title last year after Natalia Volgina (RUS) tested positive for a banned substance. Tsatsa ran 3:39:57 and the absence of the top South African, Charné Bosman, who finished a mere 22 seconds behind her, will certainly strengthen her chances.
Tsatsa, 41, could not follow up her Two Oceans success when she ran the Comrades, where she failed to finish, but so far this year she has won the Tuks Half-Marathon and was the first veteran (second overall) in the Pretoria Marathon (2:53:52). Her fastest marathon time the past year is 2:46:50 for second in the PetroSA Marathon.
Only four other 2013 gold medalists have entered again: Elena Nurgalieva (RUS), who was third, Mamorallo Tjoka (LES), Nina Podnebesnova (RUS) and Jennifer Koech (KEN), who took the last gold medal.
It is safe to say that all of these runners will vie for the top spots again. But they may not have it all their own way – not to be discounted are Elena’s twin Olesya, who won in 2008, 2010 and 2011, Melanie van Rooyen, Tshifhiwa Malobola (formerly Mundalamo), Samukeliso Moyo (ZIM) and Lizih Chokore (ZIM).
CAN NURGALIEVA DYNASTY CONTINUE?
Is the Nurgalieva twins' dominance at an end? Since 2004 they have achieved a stupendous total of 17 firsts, 15 seconds and three thirds in 38 appearances between them in South Africa’s two major ultramarathons, and Elena has won the last four Comrades marathons. But the 2013 Two Oceans was the first time that one of them could not make the top ten (Olesya was eleventh). In fact, it was the first time one of them finished out of the top four.
It seemed last year that the other runners showed less hesitance to take them on and break up the partnership, and Tsatsa and Bosman reaped the rewards, with seven others finishing ahead of the second twin. Most likely the same tactics will be used again this year.
Van Rooyen could be the first South African. After placing twelfth in 2013, she showed great improvement in the marathon, taking her PB down to 2:44:40 when winning the Port Elizabeth City Marathon in December. Earlier in the year she had been third in the SA Marathon in 2:48:35; she also won four other races, including the Pietermaritzburg Marathon and the Chatsworth Freedom 53 km. And she has won gold medals in the last two Comrades races.
An interesting entry is former winner Simona Staicu, 42. The Romanian-born Hungarian, who can boast national titles on all three surfaces during her career, won the race on her debut in 2003 in 3:37:32 --then the second fastest time ever-- and was fourth in 2004, third in 2006, and fifth in 2007 before taking a break and returning in 2011 for another fourth. She won the Budapest Marathon last year in 2:42:26 and no one will be surprised if she makes the top five once again.
Of course, there is also former double world cross-country champion Zola Pieterse, who was the fifth veteran in 2012, but her main focus is on the Comrades this year.
CAN THE RECORDS BE BROKEN?
It would seem that the men have a better chance than the women to break the course records. There is simply not a woman runner fast enough to do it. But, this observer feels it is highly unlikely that either record will be broken. In his prime Gert Thys may have been able to do it, but Magawana’s and Van der Merwe’s times are two of the most extraordinary performances in South African distance running, and it will take a very special runner to dethrone them.
HALF-MARATHONS ALSO COMPETITIVE
In the companion half-marathon Stephen Mokoka, who set a PB of 1:00:47 --the seventh fastest ever by a South African on a standard course-- in the World Half-marathon Championships three weeks ago, will defend the title he won in a course record 1:03:36 last year. Lusapho April, who was second, will be absent (he's running the Boston Marathon next Monday), but Mokoka will face strong opposition from Joel Mmone, Gladwin Mzazi, Desmond Mokgobu and Elroy Gelant, who also set a PB of 1:01:10 in Copenhagen and seems to run with equal ease on the road, on outdoor and indoor tracks and over the country. He is the current Africa Southern Region and South African cross-country champion.
On the women’s side last year's out-of-the-blue winner, Biru Meseret Mengistu (ETH), is not returning and René Kalmer, who was second and won in 2010 and 2012, is the favourite. South Africa’s best distance runner, she has won a remarkable 40 South African titles on all three surfaces and is the current half-marathon champion. She ran 1:11:53 in Copenhagen, her best on a standard course, and a week later in the Spar Grand Prix Series 10 km in Cape Town was below form, saying she was still tired. She won both the Dis-Chem and McCarthy Toyota half-marathons earlier in 2014.
Arrayed against Kalmer are sister Christine, who was fifth in 2013, Lavinia Haitope (NAM, fourth), Rutendo Nyahora (ZIM, sixth), Lebo Phalula (seventh), winner of the first Spar race, Myrette Filmalter (eighth), Jenna Challenor, who notched a PB 1:14:20 in Copenhagen, Nolene Conrad, the current SA 10 km champion, and Mapaseka Makhanya.
Among the debutantes from overseas are Mildred Kiminy (KEN), Mestawat Tadesse Shankutie (ETH) and 19 year-old Yenenesh Tilahun Dinkensa (ETH), whose best is 1:13:25.
The winners of the ultramarathon will each receive R250,000 (USD 23,750), while the half-marathon winners will take home R25,000 (USD 2375).